By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The annual rite of counting mourning doves on the morning drive in to work has started, and I must say that I am greatly impressed.

They are thick as thieves, as the saying goes.

But then I realized this is only July. Not August, when the count usually begins.

Be that as it may, the outlook is fantastic, to say the least.

Generally, I start looking ahead to the Sept. 1 opening of dove season in late August, when the doves start congregating on the sand roads into Hays.

I'm presuming, based on counts that have seen groups of 50 or more birds, that the outlook is good.

It helps to know that the state is expanding the season a bit, simply because of the sheer number of the birds.

Never mind the Eurasian collared or ringed doves that the state says we can hunt almost like prairie dogs -- almost whenever, wherever and with whatever you like. Those birds stick close to the cities, although I must admit they are pretty plump and might be like putting a cornish game hen on the plate.

All this is responsible for a slight uptick is my interest in the upcoming hunting season.

It's also helped by the sheer number of pheasants and quail that I've been seeing on the country drives I take.

And the chicks from this year's hatch, well, let's just say that they are plentiful.

Just the other day, as I pulled out of my driveway, they were at the road's edge. And there were plenty of them, perhaps eight or 10 if my eyes were working fast enough at that time of the morning.

I've seen several since then, as well as seeing turkey chicks -- in different sizes -- up around Antelope Lake as we passed through the area en route to Hoxie.

Bottom line, it's going to be a good year, as far as the hunting outlook is concerned.

Pheasants are plentiful, and the hatch coming on will simply add to the inventory, so to speak.

Doves are numerous enough that even the most unworthy of shooters (i.e., those that can only hit a barn once in a while) will most likely have a chance to munch on a feast of dove meat once or twice.

As for quail, I'm still uncertain.

They're out there, and in some places in relatively good numbers.

But I've only been seeing doubles mainly, never more than four at a time.

The coveys of yesteryear are not there, or at least that's what I've been seeing. Hopefully, they have a good hatch as well, and repopulate so that a few can be taken.

Me, I'm hoping to stand beside a pond or two come Sept. 1 -- a Tuesday -- and try my hand at throwing a cloud of shot up into the air in hopes that a dove or two will run into it and fall to the ground.

It really doesn't matter that much, however, how many birds I shoot.

After all, it's the going outside that counts.